The Song of the Island

Published On: May 13, 2021

By: Lauren Mann

I’m surrounded by firs and cedars as I sit on my deck, entranced by evening birdsong, and long shadows cast through the garden from the sun that sets behind neighbouring Salt Spring Island. From somewhere in the distance, I can hear a flute being played, soft notes carried through the thick coastal air. Other nights, someone is practicing bagpipes on a hill, a distant lament. Often, neighbours are having a backyard jam around a propane firepit, lyrics from Bob Dylan and Gordon Lightfoot wafting towards me.

Music is a deep part of the culture on the Southern Gulf Islands, and the tranquil nature of Pender Island makes it the ideal haven for artists and musicians to escape the distractions of urban life and channel the coastal inspiration into their craft. In all my travels as a professional musician myself, I’ve never experienced such a concentration of musicians in one small area, a rich mosaic of song, melody and rhythm.

When I first arrived in the enveloping tranquility of Pender Island, I attended an open mic at a neighbour’s house in the deep of winter when the rains poured down out of darkened skies. In the house, just down the street from mine, lamps were lit, the piano rolled into the middle of the room, and an eager audience sat waiting. Musician after musician played, and I got lost in the intertwining sounds of violin and cello, acoustic guitar and soaring melodies, flugelhorn, piano, accordion, and more. Teenagers sang hauntingly beautiful original songs, and shy performers bared their heart, some of whom had never played for an audience before. On the island stage, no artist is greater than the other. Music is our language, our common ground, our space to share stories and find magic in the collaboration.

Throughout the year on Pender Island, there is an abundance of opportunities for both artists and listeners, locals and travellers alike to take part in the musical magic with open mics, community jams, live concerts and more. The Pender Island Community Hall sits at the heart of the island and is a hub for gatherings and performances that showcase the culture and community spirit of Pender. Every spring and winter the Pender Island Community Choir puts on back-to-back evenings of sold-out performances of ethereal choral arrangements. On various nights throughout the year you will find everything from community square dances and big-band jazz to touring artists from the mainland and open mics. If you really want to feel like a local, make a visit to the hall on a Friday at noon for the Community Gathering put on by the Community Hall and Ptarmigan Arts that features homemade soup and live music from a local musician. Penderites of all ages come to this weekly institution to sit together, get to know each other, and listen to the melodic stylings of their friends and neighbours.

In the summer months, especially on weekends, there’s a good chance that if you wander down to Bridgeman’s Bistro (known by locals as “Browning”, or just “the pub”), the beautiful Poet’s Cove on South Pender, or HUB at Hope Bay, you’ll find live music from both locals and visiting acts, and will be able to have a drink and share some food with your friends while listening to local acts such as Sugarfoot or Ghostly Hounds.

I would be remiss if I neglected to mention the Mosaic Arts & Culture Festival that happens through the last week of July into the August long weekend. Mosaic Fest takes place at the beautiful seaside location of Hope Bay on North Pender Island and brings together the art, music, and culture that make this extraordinary island what it is. With performances from local musicians and regional touring acts as well as workshops, activities and other performances, there is something the entire family can enjoy at a historic Pender location right on the water.

As you make your way around the windy streets and forested corners of Pender in any season, you are bound to hear whispers of one of the island’s many musicians and local legends. You might find Juno award-winning guitar player Lester Quitzau conducting a tea ceremony in his backyard garden paradise. Or you could happen upon prolific songwriters Jonny Miller and Heather Read (Peach & Quiet) writing a new tune in their writing cabin. Often, Dean Steeves can be found playing songs from decades past on his piano outside the Vanilla Leaf Bakery. From jams on the deck, to songs birthed in home studios, music is always happening on Pender Island. The creation never stops, it only keeps growing, crescendoing into a chorus of harmonies from the deep musical connections that are fostered here.

Whether you are setting foot on Pender Island for the very first time, or your footsteps are well worn into the rocky island ground, the music of the islands beckons you to let your mind escape and discover the unique tapestry of melody and song that is only found in this corner of the world.

Carmanah at Mosaic Arts & Culture Festival, 2019. Photo by Lauren Mann.